Outdated and discriminatory blasphemy laws are still far too common all around the world. But the English and Welsh blasphemy laws were abolished in May 2008. The offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were common law offences which were contrary to the principle of free speech and probably contrary to human rights laws adopted by the UK, which protect freedom of expression. The law fundamentally protected certain, Christian, beliefs and made it illegal to question them or deny them.
There were a number of recent attempts to prosecute using the blasphemy law, all of which were rejected by the courts. The last was when the High Court rejected a case against BBC Director-General Mark Thompson over the screening of Jerry Springer – The Opera (penned by Stewart Lee, who subsequently became a Patron of the BHA).
What we did
We campaigned for an end to the blasphemy laws in the UK for over century and warmly welcomed their abolition. Most recently, we published a briefing on the compelling reasons to abolish the blasphemy laws and we supported amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill to abolish the laws, in both the House of Commons and in the House of Lords. The Government wrote to us to say they were grateful for our support and Evan Harris MP, who spearheaded the initiative to abolish the laws, thanked the BHA and especially the 1,000+ people who emailed their MP through the BHA on the two days running up to the Commons vote on the subject.
What we’re doing now
Although the blasphemy laws have gone, many religious groups are stepping up their campaigns to have books or artworks they disagree with banned or censored – the BHA will be working to oppose such attempts whenever we hear of them, and to uphold freedom of speech. We see particular problems with free speech on University campuses, and censorship of adverts for causing ‘religious offence’ by the Advertising Standards Authority. We are also working to oppose blasphemy laws internationally.
The ongoing position of blasphemy remains ambiguous in Northern Ireland and Scotland. In both countries blasphemy laws remain on the books, but in both it is believed by many that the current law is unenforceable, and neither law has been used for a very long time. (See, for example, Humanist Society Scotland’s report Religion in Scots Law for a summary of the situation in Scotland.) We would favour the repeal of both bits of legislation in order to remove any ambiguity.
We are now keeping a watch out for religious campaigns to curb free expression through boycotts and intimidation – If you hear of or experience any such campaigns, let us know.
You can support the BHA by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to the BHA.